Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a London-based astrologer and physician with a wide-ranging and popular practice, particularly among the gentry and members of the court. Considered by many to be a quack – the College of Physicians fought a long-running legal battle with him over the nature of his work – his use of magical techniques in no way seems to have dented the enthusiasm of his clientele. Arguably, quite the opposite in fact.
His casebooks, which still survive, are therefore superb sources for studies in the social history of the period, as well as fascinating documents in themselves. It is to Forman that we owe the earliest accounts of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale in performance, for example.
Although he dispensed a wide range of more-or-less mundane practical advice alongside his therapeutic and astrological work, some of his clients evidently sought his help on more dangerous matters. After his death, during the trial that followed the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1616, it emerged that Forman had kept a book containing the names of his high-born female clients and the details of their liaisons at court. More worryingly still, it was claimed that Frances Howard had commissioned him to manufacture a potion that would cool the ardour of her then husband, the earl of Essex, and another to secure her the affection of Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. Howard’s marriage to the Earl of Essex had been annulled by James I three years earlier on the grounds that Essex was impotent – or rather, was incapable of having sex with his wife, while being perfectly adequate to the task with anyone else – which had cleared the way for her betrothal to Somerset. Not surprisingly, given the peculiar circumstances of the annulment, there had been talk of witchcraft, even then.
However, my interest in Forman comes not from such matters – or not directly at any rate. Forman liked to note down his dreams – another factor that makes his casebooks so fascinating – and from time to time he dreamed about Elizabeth I. What follows is his dream of January 23 1597.
I’ve written about this at greater length in The Favourite, placing it in the context of the difficulties contemporary men had in finding ways to understand their subjugation to a woman who was at once the most potent and powerful individual in the country, and who was also unmarried – sometimes flirtatiously so – and therefore, in some senses, available too. The tangle of associations here – ‘unready’ clothing, cleanliness, dirt, familiarity and favour, sexuality and servitude – are fascinating, and the dream as a whole offers us an exceptionally rare opportunity for unmediated access to the Elizabethan subconscious.
I dreamt that I was with the Queen, and that she was a little elderly woman in a coarse white petticoat all unready; and she and I walked up and down through lanes and closes, talking and reasoning of many matters. At last we came over a great close where were many people, and there were two men at hard words. One of them was a weaver, a tall man with a reddish beard, distract of his wits. She talked to him and he spoke very merrily unto her, and at last did take her and kiss her.
So I took her by the arm and put her away; and told her the fellow was frantic. And so we went from him and I led her by the arm still, and then we went through a dirty lane. She had a long white smock, very clean and fair, and it trailed in the dirt and her coat behind. I took her coat and did carry it up a good way, and then it hung too low before. I told her she should do me a favour to let me wait on her, and she said I should. Then, said I: ‘I mean to wait upon you, and not under you, that I might make this belly a little bigger to carry up this smock and coats out of the dirt.’
And so we talked merrily and then she began to lean upon me, when we were past the dirt, and to be very familiar with me, and methought she began to love me. And when we were alone, out of sight, methought she would have kissed me.
Forman also has the unusual distinction of having accurately forecast the day of his death, which came on 8 September 1611. Despite being in apparent good health, he had told his wife four days earlier that he would die that day, and did so, collapsing in a boat on the Thames.